When superstar vibraphonist Gary Burton retired five years ago to a quiet life in Fort Lauderdale, he meant it.
No more international touring, no more performing – not even at home.
The seven-time Grammy winner – a self-described “gay guy who happens to be a jazz musician” – actually gave away his vibes, “to a very promising student from Slovenia.”
“I said he would get great use out of it. Otherwise, it’s going to sit in my garage in the boxes collecting dust,” said Burton, 79, who about 18 months ago moved from the Poinsettia Heights neighborhood to Wilton Manors with partner Dustin Le.
“I still have my piano and I sit down about once a month and noodle a tune or two for the heck of it,” said Burton, who also spent more than 30 years as a teacher and executive at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “But I don’t feel a compulsion to get real active at it, or anything.”
Not quite. He now enjoys a non-performing gig with the 65-member South Florida Pride Wind Ensemble. “I’m the only member of the board that isn’t a member of the band,” he said.
Burton has also become the ensemble’s big-name cheerleader, promoting the LGBTQ musical group’s three 2022-23 season concerts. The first, “Beyond Borders 2,” will be Sunday, Nov. 6, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
“It’s got a lot of guest people because it’s music of different cultures,” Burton said. “We have Japanese drummers and a marimba group that I knew nothing about, but now I’m fascinated to see what they do. That was the instrument I started with as a kid.”
Burton first became acquainted with the ensemble when he and then-husband Jonathan Chong lived down the street from Dan Bassett, the group’s artistic director.
Bassett, 49, who is head of middle school at St. Mark’s Episcopal School in Fort Lauderdale, originally joined the ensemble as a trumpeter in 1996 when he relocated here from Upstate New York. Seventeen years ago, he moved into his current role.
“We're a community band, so for the full ensemble, anyone who wants to join can come and play with us. There are members who haven't played for 30-plus years. They pick up their instrument again and join us,” Bassett said. “There's no audition process. It is pretty open. We do require a minimum number of rehearsals.”
More than a decade ago, Bassett and then-ensemble President Adam DeRosa added a “youth component” to the organization.
“I said, ‘Wouldn't it be great to give a safe space for youth?’” Bassett recalled. “You know, band kids are picked on quite often and we all went through it in high school, wouldn’t it be a great space for kids who are in band, who are either LGBTQ or allies of those students, to come in and play alongside our band – which of course is predominately LGBTQ – and be able to make music together?”
He added it was around that time both the Trevor Project and anti-bullying campaigns were really starting to make an impact.
“We thought that that would be a great focus for us,” he said.
In June 2011, the Community Foundation of Broward gave the ensemble $5,000 to launch a youth band. The next year, 23 students participated in a three-week program and the Ensemble awarded five $1,000 college scholarships.
Since then, the 37-year-old ensemble has awarded about $153,000 in scholarships, Bassett said.
Erick Cruz joined the youth band in 2012 and won a college scholarship soon after.
“I was so excited,” said Cruz, who at the time attended Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School in Northeast Miami-Dade County. “It definitely helped me with my first semester at college. I went to Miami Dade College and then I went to Florida International University. That money helped kickstart my eventual college career. As of now, I already have my degree. I have a bachelor's in science and biomedical engineering.”
Cruz, who plays the flute and oboe, said that back then, “there was nothing like” the ensemble, “an honors band for people being queer-identified.”
He noted that you don’t have to be queer to be part of the ensemble.
“If you were, the word was out you should do this. It was something really cool to be involved in. It made me feel, not appreciated, but validated,” he said. “Of course, the music was challenging, which made it all the more important.”
He said playing alongside the adult members really set this ensemble apart from others
“It felt really cool to be playing the same music with them, to learn from them and what they played, their musicality and whatever knowledge they had to impart,” he said.
Cruz, now 27 and a biomedical technician at Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute, recently re-joined the ensemble as an adult.
Stephanie Colman said she, her wife Rena Sydel and their son, Jonathan, are ensemble members.
“My son and I and my wife are all lifelong musicians since childhood,” said Colman, 69. “My wife and I were both music teachers for 35 years. We met in college as music majors. I was a pianist, she was a violinist.”
For Colman there is nothing quite like the camaraderie an ensemble offers to its members.
“Playing music is our whole lives. And bonding with the people in your ensembles – it’s almost like a baseball team – you can’t survive without everyone, even though everyone has a different role.”
Burton said he’s looking forward to the ensemble’s second concert this season on Feb. 26. This one will feature the current Youth Pride Band (the first new group of students since before the COVID pandemic) and guest conductor Julie Giroux, who also scored a recent film documentary about Planet Earth titled “The Blue Marble.”
Since Burton’s retirement, the ensemble has been his “musical outlet.” He stopped performing in 2017 after beginning to have “memory issues.”
“I would blank out in the middle of the song and forget what I was playing and where I was,” he said. “A few times it would actually be embarrassing to me in the middle of an important concert that I would mess up. I just wasn’t used to that kind of thing happening to me at my level of performance.
“I always said, ‘When you get the first signs of anything that’s not keeping you at that high level – whether it’s physical (you know your arms don’t work as well), or your brain doesn’t work as well, it’s time to step back.’”
After Burton stopped performing, two old friends – both also jazz royalty – tried to coax him back on stage and into the recording studio.
“Chick Corea used to call me every year and say, ‘Come on, let’s get the duo going again. Let’s do some concerts, let’s make another record.’ I said, ‘Chick, I haven’t touched it in two years. I’d have to start from scratch to get back into shape.’ And I still am having trouble reading music and so on because of this memory problem. I said no, it’s not going to happen. But he never gave up.”
Corea, 79, died of cancer at his home in Tampa on Feb. 9, 2021. “Even the last time I heard from him – about two months before he died – he was still pushing. ‘Give it a thought. Think about it. We can do this.’”
Burton said that when he and Corea were younger men, they agreed “when something happens and we get the signal, that’s the time to stop.”
Burton continued: “And I knew that he would have more trouble doing that than I would. So when I said I’m stopping, he was upset and tried to talk me out of it. And I said, ‘No, I’m convinced.’”
Jazz legend Pat Metheny also tried to talk Burton out of retirement. “They were my two closest friends among the jazz scene, but I stuck to my guns. And afterward, Pat said, ‘I know you did the right thing. And eventually it will be a message to the rest of us when the time comes.’”
Burton is grateful that since he retired, his memory problems haven’t gotten significantly worse.
“I have the same ones that everybody has when they get older. They can’t remember phone numbers, they forget where they left the car keys and so on. The problem is, when you’re playing, it’s like you’re doing brain surgery (although no one’s going to die if you fail.) But there are so many moving parts that your brain has to deal with that forgetting where the keys are is not an option.”
IF YOU GO
- What: The South Florida Pride Wind Ensemble
- Where: Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
- When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6
Journalist Steve Rothaus covered LGBTQ issues for 22 years at the Miami Herald. @SteveRothaus on Twitter.